World War II: Mission Symbols

Image: World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis

What are mission symbols? Learning about mission symbols painted on aircraft during World War II has proved to be somewhat difficult but interesting research. Mission symbols, also known as mission marks, kill markings and victory decals, are the small symbols painted on the sides of planes, usually near the cockpit or nose, which are used to show the successes of the crews that had flown that particular aircraft. During World War II, these marks or symbols appear not to have been official military markings but rather were given meaning through their repetitive use by the airmen. The markings may be varied in appearance and more than one marking may have similar meanings. Mission symbols were used by all of the Allied and Axis countries participating in the war.

Image: Mission symbols on a B-26 bomber. Capt. James
Mission symbols on a B-26 bomber. Capt. James “Jim” C. Brown, pilot from the 557th Bomb Squadron of the 387th Bomb Group standing in front of “Ole Smokey.”

The following chart includes examples of the types of symbols seen on the U.S. Army Air Force planes. Though initially seen on bombers, mission symbols later were also used on fighter aircraft.

Image: Mission symbols chart
Mission symbols chart
Image: Capt. Merle B. Nichols of the 79th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force, sitting atop Wilda.
Mission symbols on a P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. Capt. Merle B. Nichols of the 79th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force, sitting atop Wilda.

Here are just a few additional interesting facts concerning World War II mission symbols:

  • When the camel in symbol #25 is facing in reverse, it indicates that the aircraft had to turn around due to engine trouble.
  • Symbols of ships were used to indicate enemy ships destroyed. The markings varied according to the type of ship destroyed.
  • Mission symbols were also used on other military equipment, such as tanks and submarines, to denote the accomplishments of these groups.
  • On Royal Air Force (RAF) planes, one might see a mission symbol of an ice cream cone. What does that mean? An ice cream cone was used by the British to denote Italy. The British associated Italians with those running ice cream (gelato) shops in Britain prior to the war. Another explanation for the symbol of the ice cream cone is that a mission to Milan or Turin was considered to be a “milk run” by the RAF crews. The term “milk run” was generally used to indicate an easy mission.
Image: Dr. Carolyn Apple

Carolyn Apple Author

Dr. Carolyn Apple was a retired Dover-area emergency medicine physician and Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs volunteer.

The images in this display were selected from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection, one of the permanent collections preserved by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Willis of Dover, Del. served as a photographic technician with the Army Air Force during the Second World War.

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